Judo for Life (Japan, 1963)
Sonny Chiba’s first martial arts film, a partially fictionalized judo biopic based on the life of Shiro Saigo (*) (Chiba), the second student of judo founder Jigoro Kano (*) (Naoki Sugiura). The film follows Saigo’s early years in Tokyo where he studies under Kano, falls in love with rival school’s teacher’s daughter Michiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), and takes part in a martial arts tournament. Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata was based on the same character and shares several scenes with this film, but Judo Life focuses more on the martial arts philosophy and training, including scenes depicting how the protagonist learned his famous cat-like landing, coined the term judo, and trained with Tsunejiro Tomita (Hideo Murota), another student of Kano.
Another difference to Kurosawa’s film is the evident yakuza movie influence in Judo Life. The port street ambush scene for example is found in both films, but here it is travelling yakuza Hideo Murata (portraying what is probably an entirely fictional character) who jumps out of the rickshaw instead of Kano. Stylistically the film also shares a lot with early ninkyo yakuza films (which had just begun to establish themselves as a genre with Theatre of Life’s release a few months prior to this movie), with the same kind of beautifully old fashioned storytelling and aesthetics.
Young Chiba is fine as Saigo, acting energetic as usual and of course getting to display his athletic ability in full. The fight scenes are quite good for the era, though most of them appear in training or sports context. Unfortunately the ending melee with villains and an evil karate monk has Chiba play the second fiddle to Sugiura and box office draw Murata, the latter of whom is misleadingly given the first billing in the film’s credits and advertising materials. In reality, Murata only appears in a few scenes.
The film could also use more shades of gray, and a stronger ninkyo-like moral / honour conflict. Chiba for example falls in love with rival’s daughter Sakuma, but he’s too much of a gentleman to attempt any bedroom judo with her, even when Murata is also after her. Nothing much comes out of this love triangle in the end. The rival school’s rogue teacher (Rinichi Yamamoto) also makes a pretty one-dimensional evil villain; he was more interesting in Kurosawa’s film where the character was depicted as an obsessive challenger.
Despite the flaws, this is quite an enjoyable and interesting film for fans of martial arts and Chiba in particular, and should work pretty well for ninkyo yakuza fans as well despite not really being a yakuza film. The film was followed by one sequel in 1964, and preceded by a TV series (1962-1964) which focused on Kano, and did not feature Chiba.
* Typical to the era, the names of the actual people have been slightly changed for the film, probably to claim the film as a work of fiction, e.g. Jigoro Kano is called Rigoro Kano in the film, Shiro Saigo is Shiro Hongo in the film, and Tsunejiro Tomita is Tsunejiro Toda, and so on.
* Original title: Judo ichidai (柔道一代)
* Director: Kiyoshi Saeki
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (no subtitles)
Young judo fighter Sonny Chiba encounters yakuza Hideo Murata on the street. The same scene appears in Sanshiro Sugata but without the yakuza character.
Chiba enters Kano’s temple dojo.
Hongo (Saigo) learns his trademark cat-like movements from this stray cat. The same cat who witnessed Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris at Colosseum?
Hideo Murota as Kano’s 1st student Tsunejiro Toda = Tsunejiro Tomita. Always confusing when you have Hideo Murota and Hideo Murata in the same film…
Training with master Kano
Hongo vs. old jijutsu master. The same scene is in Sanshiro Sugata
Yoshiko Sakuma as old jujutsu master’s daughter Chiba falls in love with (but is too much of a gentleman to try any bedroom judo with). The character also appears in Sanshiro Sugata. Here in Murata’s hands.
Rinichi Yamamoto as rogue assistant instructor who becomes the bad guy.
Final battle against a karate-monk.
Rare English language trailer, which like the film’s poster and opening credits, gives Hideo Murata the top billing even though he only appears in maybe 4 or 5 scenes.